Bad eggs: How SMEs can mitigate the recruitment risk

5th May, 2015

This article was originally written by Michelle for WORKlab.

The biggest challenge for any small business owner lies in the area of recruitment, talent and retention. As a growing business without a definitely established brand and without the perks and salary cushion of more established businesses, it can feel like an uphill struggle to recruit the best talent.

From Year One as we established our social enterprise Cause4 in 2009, we struggled to recruit entrepreneurial talent to our business and so we did something relatively radical which was to start our own graduate Entrepreneurship programme straight away (when we had only 3 staff). This 12 month training programme allowed us to recruit great graduate talent and to train first and second jobbers in our style and ways of doing things. We now have some 45 graduates and apprentices on various schemes and supporting young talent is now firmly part of our company DNA.

But it’s not easy, and we’ve learned a number of things along the way. Our top five tips for recruitment for SMEs are as follows:

  • Recruit for attitude not skills – this one is perhaps a cliché but it’s best to fit roles to people rather than people to roles. I believe that it’s absolutely true that if you have the right talent you can adapt the role to suit and it will pay off much better than trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
  • Aim for a trial period – small businesses often have strong cultures, so wherever we can and at whatever level, we ask people if they are willing to undertake a paid trial period so that we can assess fit on both sides. A couple of weeks on trial can mitigate much of the risk of taking on the wrong employee for a permanent role, which is hugely risky for a small business both in terms of time and money.
  • Hire those that understand small business – potential employees who are used to big business culture are most likely accustomed to following a set of rules and will often find it hard to adapt to the changing nature of a fast-growing start-up. We’ve found that a great employee can often be the son or daughter of an entrepreneur.  Having grown up in an entrepreneurial culture, they have their eyes fully open to the rollercoaster that is start up life.
  • Test whether they are prepared to go with the ride – fast-growing businesses are exciting, but they are also stressful and unpredictable with lots of change. Flexibility and adaptability are vital, as is an ability to deal with ambiguity. The employee that expects everything to be ‘on a plate’ is not going to fit well into a growing business culture.
  • Invest in training and reward cultural fit – it’s hard to compete with big business but small businesses can focus on what makes working for a small company competitive and this can include everything from training to flexibility, job diversity and quick promotions.

Then there is the key question of retaining the ambitious Generation Y employee. Our top five points on hanging on to the best staff include:

  • Offer clear career progression within the organisation and beyond. At Cause4 we issue personalised objectives to each and every member of staff for the role that they are inhabiting and have a competency framework in place so that everyone can see what is expected of someone in a role the next level up.
  • Give honest feedback, regularly. At Cause4 we promote a ‘feedback’ culture. If you are truly going to develop people to the best of their ability (and have them remain engaged and enthusiastic), feedback shouldn’t be reserved for a 6-monthly appraisal. Don’t risk ‘saving up’ problems associated with performance which will both hold the staff member and your organisation back for months at a time, as well as making the act of feedback itself a shock.
  • Offer performance related benefits. Whilst pay might be the most obvious performance related benefit – other benefits which high performing staff might value include: training, time off, extra annual leave, and more flexible working hours.
  • Invest in the individual’s tools. In a recent survey of Cause4 staff it became clear that investing in the upgrade of our computers and other basic digital tools, such as offering access to our server remotely via employees own tablets and mobiles, would directly impact on their everyday experience of work as well as the speed and quality of the output of their work.
  • Communicate your organisation’s Employee Value Proposition. EVP – a horrible piece of jargon, but important in that it is everything that your company has to offer an employee, not just a salary. This is your company culture.  If there are particular values that your organisation stands for or abides by, which will resonate positively with staff then make sure they are communicated consistently and constantly.

And if you have resources, employ a talent manager even if for one day a week. This is an important investment for an SME that can allow you to get ahead. After all it’s your staff that are your competitive advantage.

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Phil Gibby, Director Arts Council England, South West